“YES OR NO? – ‘Ankara may convince opposition to join Geneva II’

26 May 2013 /HANİFE SEVDE KÖSE, İSTANBUL – Turkey may play a role in the planned US-Russia-led peace conference in Geneva, which is expected to bring together the Syrian regime and opposition, by convincing the opposition to comply with possible resolutions that will be made in the conference, experts say.

The conference, dubbed Geneva II in reference to a similar meeting last year, is hoped to pave the way for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria to end the country’s vicious civil war.

According to Gökhan Bacık, a professor of international relations and an expert on Middle Eastern politics at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, the difference of Geneva II from all other initiatives that aimed to solve the Syrian crisis is that all the actors, including Turkey, are supporting the negotiated settlement.

Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, an academic at Ankara’s Gazi University and the head of Ankara’s International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), agrees with Bacık. Erol told Sunday’s Zaman that the consensus between Russia and the US on the establishment of a transitional government raises hope for a resolution of the Syrian crisis. “It also means that [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime, as well as the opposition, will have to abide by possible decisions that will be made at Geneva II,” he added. Although many in the opposition are reluctant to have talks with the regime, saying it would grant legitimacy to the regime after tens of thousands of deaths, they are now discussing how to respond to the US-Russian initiative.

Assad, meanwhile, says he will not step down as a result of the transition talks, and that Syria’s political future must be determined by elections. It is also a widespread view among analysts that the recent military gains by the regime on the ground will likely harden Assad’s position in any peace talks. While the two sides warm up for the idea of peace talks, Turkey has also changed its attitude by avoiding to voice any precondition on the process of negotiations and saying it is up to all participants of the process to decide on its details.

Erol says the call for support made by US President Barack Obama during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s US visit is highly significant as Washington has asked for Turkey’s support in the Geneva initiative. “I think factions in Syria and in the region that object to the negotiations between the regime and opposition won’t be able to maintain their stance. If Russia and the US are in consensus on some issues, it shows that the negotiation process will lead to a resolution of the crisis,” he added.

While Turkey initially balked at the idea of an international conference on Syria, with Erdoğan calling it an “exercise in futility,” the government later softened its position, saying that it supports efforts to negotiate a settlement in Syria. Erol says that although Washington still regards Turkey as a main actor in resolving the crisis, the country has understood the limits of the Turkish policy on Syria. Erol also explains the change of attitude by Turkey towards Geneva II with “the failure of the Turkish policy in Syria.” As Turkey’s Syria policy did not result in success, this situation weakened Ankara’s hand, adds Erol.“When we take into account the change in Turkey’s policy towards the negotiations, it seems that Ankara has minimized its gains. There is disappointment for Turkey as well as for Gulf countries that have been staunch supporters of the opposition. The Saudi defense minister’s latest visit to Turkey is meaningful as it signals discomfort about a negotiated settlement led by the US and Russia,” Erol says.

Although the two analysts say the US-Russian initiative to bring Syria’s warring sides to the negotiating table increases the likelihood of the resolution of the crisis, Atilla Sandıklı, the head of the İstanbul-based Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), says he is not hopeful that the regime and opposition representatives will be able to reach a consensus on the establishment of a possible transitional government in Syria.

Sandıklı says that the structure of the Syrian National Coalition, the representation of Syrians in the coalition and the state of the opposition’s armed forces are basic issues for the Geneva conference to resolve in the establishment of a transitional government. According to Sandıklı, there are shortcomings in the coalition with regards to the representation of all Syrians. Although the Nusayri population is around 12 percent in the country, they are underrepresented in the coalition. He says that the coalition should create an opportunity for anti-government Nusayris to have a say in the main opposition group. In addition, the international community is disturbed that Christians and Druze are not represented adequately in the coalition group.

Sandıklı also touches on the state of an interim government formed by Ghassan Hitto. He says the international community will only be convinced that the interim government is the only political authority when they are able to form a cabinet of ministers. The interim government will also have the opportunity to be represented in the Arab League as well as in the United Nations, he adds.

A third thing is that the armed forces of opposition should step up its efforts to transform into a regular army by eliminating radical groups within their ranks, says Sandıklı. Should the Syrian National Coalition attend Geneva II — with its regular army formed, its interim government formed with its cabinet and a coalition representing all Syrians — it will surely be accepted by the international community and the Western allies. According to Sandıklı, Turkey can contribute to pre-Geneva process by helping the main opposition group to take the above steps.